Wednesday 5 August 2015 09:48, UK
With summer signing Glen Johnson having labelled Stoke a “real footballing team”, Adam Bate looks for evidence of just how much Mark Hughes has changed things at the Britannia Stadium…
“Everyone knows Stoke used to have a reputation for long balls, long throw-ins,” said 54-times capped England man Glen Johnson upon confirming his Stoke switch. “But since Mark (Hughes) came in and even before they were evolving and becoming a real footballing team.
“Hopefully I can help that continue. People have seen me play for years, I don’t like to belt it forward. I like to play football and from what Mark said to me he wants to do the same... I think it’s a club moving in the right direction and I want to be a part of it.”
Since Mark came in and even before they were evolving and becoming a real footballing team.
It takes time for perceptions to change. Stoke have been playing relatively attractive football for two seasons now but for the wider public it’s the memories of Tony Pulis’s approach and the unique challenge of a wind-swept afternoon at the Britannia Stadium that endures.
It’s a year since former Barcelona teenage sensation Bojan pitched up in the Potteries claiming that Hughes’s tactics “will suit the way that I like to play” and the new Stoke are firmly ensconced in the top half of the Premier League table - and they're looking upwards.
Even club president Gordon Banks has acknowledged that the “style has changed” since the Pulis era and that the Potters are now playing “better football” than in those years. The statistics support that view.
Such was the ferocity of the criticism received during that period, supporters could be forgiven for feeling a little sensitive regarding accusations about their style. But a definitive style it undoubtedly was. Stoke had the lowest possession stats in the Premier League from 2009/10 to 2011/12.
Pulis began the process of change in his final season in charge, hauling his side to the giddy heights of 43.5 per cent possession -- out of the bottom three when it came to keeping the ball -- but the change was too slow for some.
“You don’t just wake up one morning and say ‘We’re changing our entire style of playing today’,” said Pulis in April 2013. “It takes time for a club to evolve – three, four, maybe even five years in some cases. It’s like turning the QE2 – it has to be done gradually.”
Chelsea midfielder Marco van Ginkel has joined Stoke City on a season-long loan.
A month later his reign was over and successor Hughes began to embrace an approach that Pulis was either unable or unwilling to do. The change was swift. The team’s pass success rate climbed above 70 per cent for the first time – hitting 77.3 per cent in 2013/14.
“It's very different to the previous manager,” said striker Peter Crouch. “We're looking to pass the ball about a bit more.” The alterations were seen as a risk but perhaps the bigger risk would have been to continue along a path that put a ceiling on what was possible.
The work Hughes has done at the Britannia Stadium seems to have gone under the radar.
Hughes had previously been tarred by the mess at Queens Park Rangers – a lesson in style over substance – but top-10 finishes in his three previous jobs with Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham at least provided some evidence that he knew what such a team should look like.
Stoke had not delivered such a result in almost 40 years when Hughes took over but his first season brought that first top 10 since 1975 and the 2014/15 campaign saw the club follow up with another.
Mark Hughes played for Barcelona in the 1986/87 season and has continued to look to Catalonia in his transfer dealings since taking over at Stoke. Ibrahim Afellay recently became the fourth former Barcelona player after Moha El Ouriachi, Marc Muniesa and Bojan to join the Potters.
In doing so, Hughes has challenged the notion that the players were not ready to play a more expansive game. Steven Nzonzi thrived, while Ryan Shawcross embraced a more patient approach from the back. Both picked up player of the year awards under Hughes.
“Ryan has shown an improvement in getting on the ball in the time we have been working with him,” said Hughes soon after taking over. “People haven’t been able to see that in his play before. That was because he wasn’t asked to play that way.”
Stoke have completed the signing of 19-year-old winger Moha El Ouriachi from Barcelona.
Ironically, Hughes’s decision to abandon the percentage football was justified by the percentages. Focusing on set-pieces made sense when Stoke were outgunned upon promotion but – as Shawcross’s success showed – the 2013 group were capable of more.
The subsequent switch in emphasis has made Stoke better. In Pulis’s final season, Stoke ranked third in the Premier League for chances created from set-pieces but bottom of the pile for chances fashioned from open play.
Last season, Hughes achieved a far better balance. On the face of it, rising to ninth for open-play chances created but dropping to eighth from set-pieces was a trade-off that compromised their distinctive advantage for little gain but it amounted to far more chances created in total.
Stoke are no longer a set-piece side but, as Johnson put it, a “real footballing team” instead. Hughes has even admitted that the team’s set-plays are not great. “In terms of our strength at set-plays, I think it is overstated to be perfectly honest - we don't score that many.
“It is not through lack of preparation or work we put in. It is just we haven't quite got as many tools as maybe Stoke teams in the past have had. So we make the best of what we have now.” That’s what Stoke are doing now. Perhaps that’s what they’ve always done.
After all, pragmatism takes many forms. Pulis did what he felt was necessary to establish Stoke in the Premier League. Hughes has done what was required to take the club to the next level. Johnson is right. Stoke did have a reputation. But Stoke are evolving.